SWEDENBORG'S SCRIPTURE INTERPRETATION
Its Validity in the Late Twentieth Century
Friday, December 12, 1999
This is a huge topic, and there is no way I can do it justice. The basic problem is
simple: Swedenborg loved detail. His strategy for convincing the reader that there was
spiritual meaning in Scripture was to show that it could be found consistently in every
word. For present purposes, I think it is more appropriate to give some background
information, then to say something about the larger context in which his approach to
Scripture occurs, and then to offer a description of his method of Scripture
interpretation in that context. I shall close with some thoughts about the question of its
legitimacy in the present climate of thought. The particular views may be at odds with
traditional Swedenborgianism, but I believe they represent fairly well the direction in
which the evidence points.
First of all, I find a distinct ambiguity in Swedenborg's theological works concerning the
centrality of Scripture, and I find this ambiguity quite understandable. We are dealing
with a Swede born toward the close of the seventeenth century and raised in a devout
Lutheran household, with a father who would become a bishop. He was impressed from his
earliest years with the principle of sola Scriptura--that only "the Word," the Old and New
Testaments, conveyed the authoritative voice of God. Luther himself had depended heavily
on this principle in countering the authority of Catholic tradition and hierarchy, and
however much orthodox Lutherans might appeal to reason, it was still recognized that no
doctrine could be given consideration which did not have a Scriptural basis.
During his university days, Swedenborg encountered and was enchanted by the new wave of
empirical science, and immersed himself in it. He eventually assumed a position on
Sweden's Board of Mines, and wrote copiously and capably on scientific subjects. When he
was in his forties, he began a massive project which can best be described as an attempt
to master the science of anatomy in order to develop an empirical description of the soul.
As the conviction developed that this huge labor was going to fail in its primary goal, he
began to have paranormal experiences, which in the year 1745 culminated in his
experiencing a call from the Divine to a new career.
In view of his Lutheran upbringing, it is not surprising that he heard this "call" as a
commission to disclose the deeper meaning of Scripture, that this is what he set out to
do, and that of the twenty-four volumes of the standard English edition of the theological
works he published, fourteen are exegetical. The first work off the press after his change
of vocation was Arcana Coelestia, a verse-by-verse treatment of Genesis and Exodus that
ran to eight folio volumes in its Latin first edition and extends to twelve octavo volumes
in English. Somewhat later, he published a commentary on the book of Revelation which
occupies two octavo volumes in English translation.
Swedenborgian scholars have paid little attention to clear indications that Swedenborg
began the Arcana Coelestia with the express intent of continuing it to the end of
Scripture.<1> I have elsewhere proposed reasons for his change of strategy.<2> Here I
would mention only a possible factor which is the other side of the ambiguity I mentioned
earlier, namely that his paranormal experience convinced him that the Divine provided in
every religion sufficient truth for the leading of a heavenly life. As a specific
instance, he describes "Mohammedan heavens," and states that Muhammad's rigid monotheism
was permitted under Providence to prevent the spread of a Christianity that had
degenerated into idolatry.<3>
To place his method of Scripture interpretation in the larger context of his thought,
then, we mey begin by observing that metaphysically, he took omnipresence very seriously.
It does seem as though the divine were not the same in one person as in another--that it
were different, for example, in a wise person than in a simple one, different in an
elderly person than in an infant. But this appearance is deceptive. The person is a
recipient, and the recipient or recipient vessel may vary. A wise person is a recipient of
divine love and divine wisdom more aptly and therefore more fully than a simple person,
and an elderly person who is also wise more than an infant or child. Still, the divine is
the same in the one as it is in the other . . . .
The Divine is also the same in the largest and smallest of all created things which are
not alive . . . .<4>
Perceiving the Divine, then, was not so much a matter of what one was looking at as it was
a matter of how one was looking. The following quotation is moderately long, but it will
relate very directly to our discussion of Swedenborg's method of Scripture interpretation.
There are two lights from which we receive light, the light of the world and the light of
heaven. The light of the world comes from the sun; the light of heaven comes from the
Lord. The world's light is for the natural or outer person, therefore for the matters in
that person. Even though it may not seem as though these matters belong to that light,
they nevertheless do, for nothing can be grasped by the natural person except by means of
the kinds of thing that occur and appear in this subsolar world. This means they must have
some trace of form from the world's light and shade. All the concepts of time, all the
concepts of space, so significant to the natural person that thinking would be impossible
without them, pertain to this light as well. In contrast, heaven's light is for the
spiritual or inner person. Our more inward mind, the locus of concepts we call abstract,
is in that light. People are unaware of this even though they refer to their discernment
as sight and attribute light to it. This is because as long as they are involved in
worldly and physical concerns they can perceive only the kinds of thing that are proper to
the world's light. Heaven's light is from the Lord alone: all heaven is in that light: . .
Between these lights--or between things in heaven's light and things in the world's
light--there is a responsiveness when the outer or natural person is acting as one with
the inner or spiritual person, that is, when the former is serving the latter. Then the
things that happen in the world's light are portrayals of the kinds of thing that happen
in heaven's light.<5>
The word "responsiveness" in the preceding quotation has been chosen in preference to the
more traditional translation "correspondence," in part because Swedenborg in one instance
describes the ear as "corresponding" to the air and to sound,<6> but in general because
the relationship is consistently portrayed as an active one. The spiritual world, in this
view, is the world of causes, and the material world is the world of effects.<7>
Scripture, or more precisely for Swedenborg, the Word, is a special instance of this
general principle. It is not unique in containing spiritual meaning.
Each and every thing in nature and its three kingdoms has something active within it from
the spiritual world. If there were not this kind [of force] within it, absolutely nothing
in the natural world would actuate [the process of] cause and effect, so nothing whatever
would result. What is present in natural things from the spiritual world is called the
force inherent from first creation, but it is the energy [conatus]: when it ceases, action
or motion ceases. This is why the whole visible world is a theater that portrays the
Like everything else, Scripture is composed in "the language of correspondences," as a
material result of spiritual causes. It is unique in focusing explicitly on the Lord and
his kingdom,<9> and in doing so in unbroken series.<10>
The "language of correspondences," for Swedenborg, is no arcane code, but a set of causal
The most universal principle is that the Lord is heaven's sun, and is the source of all
light in the other life. To angels and spirits (or to people in the other life) nothing
whatever of the world's light is visible--the world's light, which comes from the sun, is
nothing but profound darkness to angels. From heaven's sun or the Lord there comes not
only light, but warmth as well, but the light is spiritual and the warmth is spiritual.
To the eyes of spiritual beings, the light looks like light, but because of its source it
contains intelligence and wisdom. Also, by the senses of spiritual beings the warmth is
perceived as warmth, but because of its source, there is love within it. So too love is
called spiritual warmth and causes the warmth of human life, and intelligence is called
spiritual light and causes the light of human life. From this universal correspondence
flow the rest. For each and every reality goes back to the good, which is a matter of
love, and the true, which is a matter of intelligence.<11>
He would see an inherent, universal validity in images of light and darkness, height and
depth, nearness and remoteness, nourishment, growth and decay, marriage, conception, and
birth--a kind of broad but invariant meaning in all the laws of physics and biology.
Through this lens, for example, the creation story becomes an image of the formation of
the human soul, with the gift of light leading first to the distinction between heavenly
and earthly concerns, then the gradual structuring of the earthly concerns, the formation
of primary "heavenly" allegiances, and the growth of increasingly complex and living
affections and thoughts, until finally there is a person who can truly be regarded as
human, as being in the image and likeness of the Divine.<12>
In most general terms, the spiritual content of Scripture is presented as de-scribing
spiritual processes. On a relatively accessible level, this process is a kind of history
of religion, the story of ups and downs in the spiritual state of humanity. On a deeper
level, it is the story of the spiritual growth of the human individual; and on the deepest
level, it is the story of the reconciliation of human and Divine in the Christ. In each
case, the first eleven chapters of Genesis (creation through the tower of Babel) form a
kind of prologue, and the plot proper starts with the call of Abram. The insistence of God
and the reluctance of humanity lends itself to being used as imagery, and it has been
particularly appealing to Swedenborgians that the portrayals of God as tyrannical and
vindictive emerge quite naturally as human projections of our own fear and anger.
It is in fact not difficult to look at the overall story from the call of Abram to the
descent of the Holy City and see distinct phases in it. The rudimentary plot of struggling
to found an earthly kingdom, having that kingdom collapse, and then having its promise
transmuted into "the kingdom of heaven" in the Gospels can be seen as imaging a general
life pattern of striving for earthly goals, discovering them to be hollow, and beginning
to live for deeper values.
Is this a valid approach to Scripture in the present climate of thought? It is not easy to
give a simple "yes" or a simple "no." As I suggested at the outset, the most forbidding
aspect of Swedenborg's treatment of Scripture is surely its detail. He himself never gives
us the kind of overview I have just suggested. He starts at the beginning and proceeds
verse by verse. Every event, every person, every place in Genesis and Exodus is assigned a
meaning. Some who have made the effort to master the vocabulary have avowed themselves
convinced by its consistency, though at the risk of making interpretation a relatively
mechanical procedure. The most thorough study of the principles of interpretation, William
Frederic Pendleton's The Science of Exposition,<13> indicates clearly that Swedenborg is
talking about a rather subtle and complex process. One must pay particular attention, for
example, to "the series"--Swedenborg's way of insisting that passages are not to be pulled
out of context; and the mood of a passage may be as vital a clue to its meaning as any
particular word or phrase.
Especially, Swedenborg insists repeatedly that the attitude of the reader is critical.
I have been told by angels that the Lord's Word is a dead letter, but that while it is
being read it is brought to life by the Lord in accord with each individual's ability. It
comes to life according to [one's] life of compassion [charitatis] and state of innocence,
with immeasurable variety.<14>
If one is reading it as historian, then, the kind of meaning Swedenborg is primarily
concerned with will be irrelevant. If one is reading it to marshal support for
preconceived theological stances, the same will hold true. There is little question what
attitude Swedenborg advocates, or why.
It is recognized that there are many people in the church who are influenced by the Lord's
Word and devote a great deal of labor to reading it. But there are few who do so with a
view to being taught about the truth. Most of them actually stay within their own dogma
and just work to confirm it from the Word. They seem to be involved in an affection for
the truth, but they are not. The only people who are involved in an affection for the
truth are those who love to be taught about what is true, that is, to know what is true,
and who search the scriptures with this end in view. No one is involved in this affection
except those who are involved in what is good--that is, in compassion toward the neighbor,
and even more so those who are in a love for the Lord. For them, the good itself is
flowing into the true and producing the affection, since the Lord is present in that
I would urge that there is both wisdom and pertinence to the statement of the obvious in
the first part of this quotation, namely that people come to Scripture with a variety of
purposes. This impinges directly on the question of the validity of spiritual
interpretation, since it forces us to ask the question, "Valid for what--or for whom?"
Within the framework of Swedenborg's metaphysics, his method of scripture interpretation
is not only valid, but virtually inescapable. The whole physical world is a theater
expressive of the Divine:
The universe in its greatest and smallest parts, in its first and its last forms, is so
full of divine love and divine wisdom that we could say it is divine love and divine
wisdom in image . . . . The created universe is an image that portrays the God-Man, and .
. . his love and wisdom are . . . presented in the universe in an image.<16>
If we look, we can find the Divine represented everywhere.
The exegetical pluralism that follows from the variety of purposes is certainly timely.
While there is a tendency at present to focus on its excesses, decon-structionism has left
us with the conviction that there can be no complete or definitive exegesis of any text.
Further, social concerns have led to approaches to Scripture with avowed agendas, such as
those of feminist and liberation theologies, and the field of Biblical scholarship, once
monopolized by historical criticism, is now bewilderingly diverse. The academic world has
its criteria for responsible scholarship, and the clergy of mainline churches have, by and
large, been exposed to these criteria and impressed by them.
Some recent approaches focus on larger units of text. "Biblical literary critics of the
new breed concur with redaction and canonical critics in trying to illumine how the entire
composition of a biblical writing is to be read in its integrity."<17> ". . . the text as
it stands is the proper object of study in that it offers a total, self-contained literary
meaning . . . ."<18> This tendency to look at the larger sweep of the story could be
cordial to a Swedenborgian aproach. However, what is sought by such methods is not so much
guidance for a life of compassion toward the neighbor as it is an understanding of the
ways in which the narrative took its final form. There is resistance in academic circles
to starting from the assumption that the Bible has some special nature, place, or
authority, though at the same time, there is the recognition that it does have special
authority for many people.
I would suggest that a significant factor in resistance to modes of interpretation such as
Swedenborg's is a rarely articulated belief that God does not talk in arbitrary codes.
The whole notion that the multiple authors of Scripture could have written a massive
allegory without ever realizing it runs counter to contemporary notions of the nature of
the Divine. It assumes a kind of manipulation of people that may have been acceptable in
Biblical or even medieval times, but which has been out of fashion since the
As I noted earlier, though, within the context of Swedenborg's own theology, the
relationship between literal text and spiritual message is not seen as arbitrary. It would
certainly be idle to pretend that this theological context is widely accepted, and there
is need of some rationale for spiritual interpretation, some rationale acceptable on
contemporary grounds. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity this occasion affords
to explore an approach that has occurred to me only recently as perhaps beginning to
bridge the gap between spiritual interpretations and Biblical scholarship.
Most broadly put, it is that the interdependence between observer and observed means that
every statement will say something about both. Obviously, the Bible reports only a minute
fragment of "what actually happened," and that fragment is (1) selected by what people
regarded as significant and (2) shaped by their notions of what was plausible. It
reflects, that is, human values and human notions of intelligible process.
For example, the pattern of small beginnings, effort in the face of adversity, and
ultimate success is presumed by our experiences of childhood and maturing. Looking at the
complexity of "what actually happened in history," sorting through accounts given from a
variety of perspectives, narrators will tend to fashion an account that "makes sense" to
them, one therefore that reflects their own experience. Given a text that represents not a
single author but generations, even millennia, of "authors," we might reasonably expect a
measure of universality, a relative transcendence of individual bias.
Let me offer a contemporary parallel. We are currently being challenged to rethink the
significance of Columbus's voyage of five hundred years ago. How we understand that event
is strongly influenced by our own values--does it represent the spread of the blessings of
civilization, or the triumph of might over right, or some combination of the two? How we
write the story says a great deal about ourselves. If we look back to a time before the
writing of history was an academic discipline, before scholarly detachment was a
recognized virtue, then the Bible offers us a unique window into the human psyche.
If it is legitimate to use the Bible to explore fundamental assumptions about human nature
and process, then what Swedenborg offers is at least an hypothesis about the language by
which these assumptions are communicated. It would be a language of what we might call
"organic symbolism" not unlike the language of Jungian archetypes, and with a similar
claim to universality. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to its acceptance remains its
The basic validity of the whole enterprise remains conditional, though. It depends on
agreement that it is legitimate to look to Scripture for self-understanding, and also on
agreement that some standing be granted to such criteria as "compassion toward the
neighbor and love for the Lord." These are not readily accessible to academic evaluation;
so I would hazard the guess that they constitute a significant obstacle to the
consideration of Swedenborg's system in academic circles.
<1>:In the work itself, there are anticipations of treatment of passages in
Leviticus, Joshua, and Judges, and the printer's advertisement for an English
translation (sponsored by Swedenborg) of the second volume explicitly describes
the work as part of a treatment of "the whole Bible." Cf. Robert Hindmarsh,
Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church (London: Hodson & Son, 1861), p.
<2>:Cf."A Rationale for Swedenborg's Writing Sequence, 1749-1771," in Robin
Larsen, ed., Emanual Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision (New York: Swedenborg
Foundation. 1988), pp. 293-297.
<3>:Cf. Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence (New York: Swedenborg
Foundation), n. 255, also ___________________, True Christian Religion (New
York: Swedenborg Foundation), n. 831. As is customary in Swedenborgian studies,
references are not to pages but to paragraph numbers, which are uniform in all
editions. Volumes of the Standard Edition in English are reprinted by the
Swedenborg Foundation as needed, so precise publication dates have little
<4>:_______________, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg Foundation),
<5>:____________________, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg Foundation),
<6>:ibid., n. 4523.
<7>:ibid., n. 2993.
<8>:ibid., n. 5173:2.
<9>:ibid., n. 155.
<10>:ibid., nn. 3304:3, 4442:e.
<11>:Ibid., n. 3636.
<12>:For a very capable summary by a non-Swedenborgian of Swedenborg's
treatment of the creation story, cf. Henry Corbin, "Herméneutique Spirituelle
Comparée (I. Swedenborg - II. Gnose Ismaélienne)", in Eranos Jahrbuch, 1964,
pp. 71-176. The similarities he points out lend some credence to the notion
that the symbolism is not simply arbitrary.
<13>:William Frederic Pendelton, The Science of Exposition (Bryn Athyn: Academy
of the New Church, 1915).
<14>:Ibid., n. 1776.
<15>:Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), n.
<16>:____________________, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg
Foundation), n. 52.
<17>:Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 24.
<18>:ibid., p. 22.